Dr. Steve Lindsley
(Matthew 4: 12-25)
Do you hear the drumbeat getting louder?
The way Matthew tells it in his opening chapters, that drumbeat had been building for some time. King Herod gets wind of a potential rival to his power and tries to convince strangers from the east to reveal his whereabouts, which they thankfully decline to do. Mary and Joseph flee with their newborn son all the way to Egypt to avoid the king’s wrath.
Thirty years pass, and there’s John the Baptist at the riverside, baptizing hundreds each day, imploring the faithful to “repent” – a word that for us invokes the stuff of tent revival meetings, but back in the day simply meant to turn around – turn from what was, what was known, what was comfortable, and turn toward something new, something life-giving, something risky. Something that the powers-that-be definitely did not want one to turn to.
John tells anyone who will listen that it’s not about him, that he’s just the messenger, just the one pointing to the real one: I baptize you with water for repentance, for turning around, he tells them, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me. He’ll baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.
Jesus – the same Jesus who escaped death thirty years before, now shows up by the riverside and insists on being baptized. After which he heads into the wilderness and endures crippling hunger and thirst and temptations that seek to derail his work before it’s even begun – such is the threat of Jesus to the established order and the way things had always been.
And now, in our scripture today, Jesus gets the news about John’s arrest. And he knows what that means. An unmistakable shot across the bow, is it not? Because see, while baptizing people in the river is technically not a crime, the fact remains that empire always gets nervous at the slightest flicker of human hope, quickly moving to snuff it out before it grows into that which is feared even more: change.
So upon hearing the news that John had been arrested, we are told, Jesus “withdraws” to Galilee. Withdraws. Some translations use the word “retreats” – neither of which do justice to what Jesus is really doing here; our English verbiage seeking to soften things as much as it can. The Greek word, anechrowreysen, is the same word used a mere two chapters earlier to describe Mary and Joseph “fleeing” to Egypt. That was no “retreat.” This isn’t either.
And so upon hearing of John’s arrest, with that drumbeat relentless now, Jesus gets the heck out of dodge and flees to Galilee. Now Galilee was not only geographically far from Jerusalem, it was politically far as well. Less imperial impact and influence, more open to revolutionaries and rabble-rousers. Walking beside the Sea of Galilee one day, Jesus happens upon two young fishermen casting their nets into the water. Follow me, he tells them, and I’ll make you fish for people.” Jesus has a knack for seeing in people what others might not see themselves. They drop their nets and go with him. He finds two others further up the shore and invites them as well. They do the same.
Our passage today from the fourth chapter of Matthew is a passage about the drumbeat getting louder and louder and how Jesus responds to it. In fact, the way Matthew tells it, this is the moment that sets the stage for everything that follows. There would be no Sermon on the Mount, no miracles, no preaching and teaching, and certainly no cross or empty tomb without this response from Jesus to the news about John. Fleeing to Galilee to find himself and his people. Fully owning into his mission in the world. And telling this to anyone and everyone who would listen:
Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.
Kingdom of heaven – not heaven as we might think of it, but rather God’s kingdom in the now, a kingdom that is simultaneously on its way and already here, a kingdom that is beyond our reach while also being right within our grasp.
Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.
Repent – because it is in the turning itself where God’s kingdom is made clearest to us, our view of it and our capacity to live into it as unobstructed as it ever will be. Repent, but do so at your own risk; because one cannot unsee what has been seen, and because once you have turned around it is hard, so very hard, to ever turn back.
How exactly does one go about repenting these days? I’ve already made mention of the less-than-flattering and largely inaccurate colloquial understanding of repentance that has more than muddied the waters a bit. Fact is, we Presbyterians are about as comfortable talking about repentance as we are evangelism or altar calls.
But what does repentance actually look like for us? What exactly are we turning away from and turning toward? And where in that turning around do we encounter the arriving and already-here kingdom of God that Jesus speaks of?
Some might think that repentance ought to be “the bigger, the better.” Some might surmise that the only way to truly “turn around,” to bring real and lasting change, is through a single bold, courageous act. I have an image of this hanging on my office wall. It was taken in the summer of 1989 in Beijing, China at the height of the Tiananmen Square massacre, where thousands of women and men, mostly university students, were murdered on the heels of weeks of peaceful protests. I was actually in Beijing when it all went down, part of a Wake Forest University student group, hunkered up in a hotel mere miles from the city’s center.
In the picture, a young man wearing a white shirt and black slacks stands in the middle of the road, blocking a line of tanks trying to enter the Square. It is a jarring image, a single figure of flesh and blood defying massive hunks of metal and steel. The video of it, which can be found on Youtube, shows the standoff for a few uncomfortable minutes, until the lead tank turns to the right in an attempt to go around the man. The man, who would later become known as “Tank Man,” then steps to his left to block the tank again. A few tense moments pass, after which Tank Man climbs on top of the lead tank and appears to try and communicate with the driver inside.
Make no mistake, it is a picture of unbelievable bravery and courage. Some would even say heroic. But it is not a picture of what brings about real, lasting change. That’s because real change doesn’t typically hinge on the heroes.
In his book Worldchanging 101: Challenging The Myth Of Powerlessness, author and former Montreat speaker David LaMotte speaks to what he calls the myth of the hero narrative, a myth deeply woven into the fabric of our culture with every superhero movie, every news story of someone ordinary doing extraordinary things. We love our heroes, he says. And because of that, we paralyze ourselves with this myth, because the hero, we believe, is never us. It is always someone else. And so when crises arise, when news comes that shocks us to our core, what do we do? We wait for a hero to show up. And we wait some more. And not surprisingly, very little, if anything, ever changes.
It’s not a very effective model for real and lasting change, is it? Not only are we waiting for a hero to come that’s not us, we are also waiting for a crisis as well – waiting for a crisis instead of taking initiative to address problems before those problems become a crisis. It’s reactive instead of proactive. But even worse, it absolves us from ever having to play any part in the change at all.
What was it that Jesus said? Repent – turn around – for the kingdom of heaven has come near.
LaMotte loves to tell the story of civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks, arrested in December 1955 for disobeying a bus driver’s directive to move toward the back of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama in order to make room for white riders – technically, to make room for multiple seats between the white and black riders. Over the years, the hero narrative has latched on to this story and led many to assume this was an isolated, spur-of-the-moment decision by a random African-American woman in Alabama to do something bold and courageous, something that would become a seminal moment in the civil rights movement.
But there’s a lot more to the story than the hero narrative lets on. For one, Ms. Parks was not the only person, not even the first, to be arrested for such an act. Others had been doing the same as part of a larger city bus boycott that had been going on for years, pushing for more equity in the location of bus stops, specifically in black neighborhoods. Over 50,000 flyers explaining the boycott had been handed out on the Montgomery streets. She did not act alone.
Which speaks to another part of the story that counters the hero myth: all of this was highly coordinated and planned. There was nothing sporadic about it. Ms. Parks was one of dozens of local activists who attended training camps the summer before, instructing them in the ways of nonviolent acts of resistance. And through it all, she and the others were surrounded by a team of advisers providing emotional and spiritual support, long before and long after setting foot on any bus.
None of this, of course, lessens what Rosa Parks did that December day, not in the least. There is no doubt she made an impact. But it wasn’t just because of her. It was because of what she did along with everyone else.
You’ll get a kick out of this – as he unpacked the Rosa Parks story and the myth of the hero narrative to a group of church professionals at a Presbyterian conference, David LaMotte said: You know what changes the world? Committees! There was laughter in the room, for understandable reasons, but David was not trying to be funny. He continued: People gathering to talk about what needs to be done and who’s going to do it – that is what changes the world.
Now when it comes to words that make us Presbyterians wince, we could probably lump “committee” into the same category as “repentance” and “evangelism.” But it’s pretty much what Jesus does, right? Think about it. Jesus gets the news about John and flees to Galilee to pause, to take a breath. He knows his purpose is to bring about real and lasting change, but he also knows that going solo and trying to be a hero is a sure-fire way to guarantee that his work in the world would one day die with him.
So what does he do? What’s the first thing of any significance that Matthew tells us Jesus does? He forms a committee. A committee, people! He finds others to join him on the journey. Simon, Andrew, James, John. More would follow. Men and women – even though we don’t hear much about women disciples, they were there, make no doubt.
And what does this Disciples Committee do? They do what all committees do. They meet regularly. They work with an agenda that reflects things that matter to them; things they want to change and how they’re going to go about doing it. They pray. They dare to dream. They might disagree from time to time; and on occasion some personality conflicts will flare up.
But through all of it, they come together and carry out the work they’re called to. And they make an impact. They change the world. Two thousand years later, here we are. All because of a man with a vision and the committee he formed to help him.
So, make note: the next time you’re asked to join a ministry team at our church, say yes! Know that you’re not just being asked to be on a committee, but you’re being invited to become part of the movement that Jesus started two thousands years ago. That is not hyperbole. Say yes.
And know that the movement you’re saying yes to is needed more than ever. Because we hear the drumbeat getting louder and louder. We see all that ails us, all that is broken, all that is hurting in the world. We could wait for someone to come along and make it right. But nothing would change. We could strike out on our own and try to be the hero. But that won’t last.
And so we follow the lead of Jesus. We repent, we turn around. We gather together. And before we do anything else, we listen. We listen to others and hear what their needs are. We listen to the Spirit and discern where she is leading us. We take time to understand the problems we hope to address by asking, how is this problem becoming a problem in the first place? Why are more and more people experiencing homelessness? What role should our church play in addressing systemic injustice and inequity? Why aren’t people coming to church more? How do we best encourage folks to support the church financially? What’s the best way to connect with our younger members? What do our youth, our children, most need from their church? How do we better address the spiritual needs of our people? Before we jump to conclusions on any of these things just to do something for the sake of doing something, before we assume we already know the answer to the questions we’re asking, we listen.
And when the time is right, and only when we are ready to move forward as a whole, we act. We turn toward. Never going at it alone; always with those around us. We support each other; we keep Jesus squarely in our sights. And God willing, we find a way forward to real and lasting change, whether it happens in our lifetime or beyond.
Repent, beloved people of God, turn around; for the kingdom of heaven has come near.
And for that, in the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.
 From Worldchanging 101: Challenging The Myth Of Powerlessness by David LaMotte, pgs. 64-65.